Revised deep ecology platform surprising and disheartening

                                                                                                                        A review by David Orton

                           Conversations with Arne Naess: Is It Painful to Think?           
                             by David Rothenberg, University Of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis,
                                      1993, paperback, 204 pages, ISBN 0-8166-2152-7.

            Conversations with Arne Naess: Is It Painful to Think? is the product of an extended discussion
        between the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, inventor of the term “deep ecology” in 1972, and American
        academic David Rothenberg, the translator of Naess’s influential Ecology, Community and Lifestyle. Naess,
        who is over 80 years old, has worked since the late ‘60s developing the ideas encompassed in the philosophy
        of deep ecology, the theoretical heart of an increasingly influential tendency within the worldwide green movement.
        This tendency seeks to fundamentally reorient human societies and their institutions to establish a new ecocentric
        relationship with the natural world. Naess, who comes through as a modest man in his writings, makes it clear in
        this book that the deep ecology movement existed long before he gave it a name.

            Conversations in this book help to show the evolution of the philosophical thinking of Arne Naess: his family
        background and the rebellion against his mother; a period of psychoanalysis; crucial influences such as the Vienna
        logical positivists, Spinoza, Gandhi and Kierkegaard; and some aspects of his contemporary deep ecological

            Naess is someone who distances himself from others, from conventions, and also from the positions that he puts
        forth. In spite of his rapidly growing influence, Naess remains the outsider or critic, apart from the society that his
        ideas are changing.

            Naess maintains that precision and ambiguity are needed by the philosopher, and some concepts and language
        used in deep ecology such as “gestalt ontology” or self-realization” are never rigidly defined.

            The response of Naess and the projection of his thinking is shaped to a large extent in this book by the
        uncompromising questions and comments made by the curiously narrow, conservative and critical Rothenberg who
        also provides a preface, introductions to all nine chapters and an epilogue.

            A theme imposed on the conversations and that open and close the text, is the unity of humanity and the
        environment. Putting nature before people or human interests, seems to be the ultimate crime for David Rothenberg,
        and one to which supporters of deep ecology, according to him, are particularly prone. Speaking of deep ecology,
        Rothenberg says:
                “Well, a lot of people don’t want to be included in it, because they think of it as an extreme point of
                  view that tends to put nature before people.”

        For Naess there are no dualisms, and he makes this clear to his interviewer.

            Rothenberg comes through as someone stressing human interests and, perhaps because of this, Naess gets
        backed into positions that seem at odds with the overall deep ecological perspective:
                “A whole human culture has the priority over extinction of one or several animal species - but only
        if the cultural difference is deep enough from all others.

            Rothenberg, who seems to favour a social ecology perspective, continually claims that some who follow deep
        ecology see nature “apart” from people. His cranky discussion of the environment-humanity interaction, perhaps
        the main theme of this book, left this reader very dissatisfied.

            In the introduction to chapter seven “Defining the Deep”, the theoretical core of this book, the well known
        eight-point platform of deep ecology is stated. Here, however, what amounts to a revisionist bombshell is dropped.
        Rothenberg declares the platform now includes support for “sustainable development.”

           (This review was printed in the Canadian journal Alternatives, Vol. 20, No. 4, 1994. Rothenberg
            responded to my review in a subsequent issue. Arne Naess wrote two letters to me [December 2, 1996
            and January 10th, 1997] regarding the position of Rothenberg that “sustainable development” was
            now to be considered part of the deep ecology Platform. In the January 10th letter he wrote, “I can
            assure you that I never have thought of including the expression ‘sustainable development’ in the
            formulation of the eight points.”)

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